The Legend Of Thorgunna

: Folk-lore And Legends Scandinavian

A ship from Iceland chanced to winter in a haven near Helgafels. Among

the passengers was a woman named Thorgunna, a native of the Hebrides,

who was reported by the sailors to possess garments and household

furniture of a fashion far surpassing those used in Iceland. Thurida,

sister of the pontiff Snorro, and wife of Thorodd, a woman of a vain and

covetous disposition, attracted by these reports, made a visit to the

anger, but could not prevail upon her to display her treasures.

Persisting, however, in her inquiries, she pressed Thorgunna to take up

her abode at the house of Thorodd. The Hebridean reluctantly assented,

but added, that as she could labour at every usual kind of domestic

industry, she trusted in that manner to discharge the obligation she

might lie under to the family, without giving any part of her property

in recompense of her lodging. As Thurida continued to urge her request,

Thorgunna accompanied her to Froda, the house of Thorodd, where the

seamen deposited a huge chest and cabinet, containing the property of

her new guest, which Thurida viewed with curious and covetous eyes. So

soon as they had pointed out to Thorgunna the place assigned for her

bed, she opened the chest, and took forth such an embroidered bed

coverlid, and such a splendid and complete set of tapestry hangings, and

bed furniture of English linen, interwoven with silk, as had never been

seen in Iceland.

"Sell to me," said the covetous matron, "this fair bed furniture."

"Believe me," answered Thorgunna, "I will not lie upon straw in order to

feed thy pomp and vanity;" an answer which so greatly displeased Thurida

that she never again repeated her request. Thorgunna, to whose character

subsequent events added something of a mystical solemnity, is described

as being a woman of a tall and stately appearance, of a dark complexion,

and having a profusion of black hair. She was advanced in age; assiduous

in the labours of the field and of the loom; a faithful attendant upon

divine worship; grave, silent, and solemn in domestic society. She had

little intercourse with the household of Thorodd, and showed particular

dislike to two of its inmates. These were Thorer, who, having lost a leg

in the skirmish between Thorbiorn and Thorarin the Black, was called

Thorer-Widlegr (wooden-leg), from the substitute he had adopted; and his

wife, Thorgrima, called Galldra-Kinna (wicked sorceress), from her

supposed skill in enchantments. Kiartan, the son of Thurida, a boy of

excellent promise, was the only person of the household to whom

Thorgunna showed much affection; and she was much vexed at times when

the childish petulance of the boy made an indifferent return to her


After this mysterious stranger had dwelt at Froda for some time, and

while she was labouring in the hay-field with other members of the

family, a sudden cloud from the northern mountain led Thorodd to

anticipate a heavy shower. He instantly commanded the hay-workers to

pile up in ricks the quantity which each had been engaged in turning to

the wind. It was afterwards remembered that Thorgunna did not pile up

her portion, but left it spread on the field. The cloud approached with

great celerity, and sank so heavily around the farm, that it was scarce

possible to see beyond the limits of the field. A heavy shower next

descended, and so soon as the clouds broke away and the sun shone forth

it was observed that it had rained blood. That which fell upon the ricks

of the other labourers soon dried up, but what Thorgunna had wrought

upon remained wet with gore. The unfortunate Hebridean, appalled at the

omen, betook herself to her bed, and was seized with a mortal illness.

On the approach of death she summoned Thorodd, her landlord, and

intrusted to him the disposition of her property and effects.

"Let my body," said she, "be transported to Skalholt, for my mind

presages that in that place shall be founded the most distinguished

church in this island. Let my golden ring be given to the priests who

shall celebrate my obsequies, and do thou indemnify thyself for the

funeral charges out of my remaining effects. To thy wife I bequeath my

purple mantle, in order that, by this sacrifice to her avarice, I may

secure the right of disposing of the rest of my effects at my own

pleasure. But for my bed, with its coverings, hangings, and furniture, I

entreat they may be all consigned to the flames. I do not desire this

because I envy any one the possession of these things after my death,

but because I wish those evils to be avoided which I plainly foresee

will happen if my will be altered in the slightest particular."

Thorodd promised faithfully to execute this extraordinary testament in

the most exact manner. Accordingly, so soon as Thorgunna was dead, her

faithful executor prepared a pile for burning her splendid bed. Thurida

entered, and learned with anger and astonishment the purpose of these

preparations. To the remonstrances of her husband she answered that the

menaces of future danger were only caused by Thorgunna's selfish envy,

who did not wish any one should enjoy her treasures after her decease.

Then, finding Thorodd inaccessible to argument, she had recourse to

caresses and blandishments, and at length extorted permission to

separate from the rest of the bed-furniture the tapestried curtains and

coverlid; the rest was consigned to the flames, in obedience to the will

of the testator. The body of Thorgunna, being wrapped in new linen and

placed in a coffin, was next to be transported through the precipices

and morasses of Iceland to the distant district she had assigned for her

place of sepulture. A remarkable incident occurred on the way. The

transporters of the body arrived at evening, late, weary, and drenched

with rain, in a house called Nether-Ness, where the niggard hospitality

of the proprietor only afforded them house-room, without any supply of

food or fuel. But, so soon as they entered, an unwonted noise was heard

in the kitchen of the mansion, and the figure of a woman, soon

recognised to be the deceased Thorgunna, was seen busily employed in

preparing victuals. Their inhospitable landlord, being made acquainted

with this frightful circumstance, readily agreed to supply every

refreshment which was necessary, on which the vision instantly

disappeared. The apparition having become public, they had no reason to

ask twice for hospitality as they proceeded on their journey, and they

came to Skalholt, where Thorgunna, with all due ceremonies of religion,

was deposited quietly in the grave. But the consequences of the breach

of her testament were felt severely at Froda.

The dwelling at Froda was a simple and patriarchal structure, built

according to the fashion used by the wealthy among the Icelanders. The

apartments were very large, and a part boarded off contained the beds of

the family. On either side was a sort of store-room, one of which

contained meal, the other dried fish. Every evening large fires were

lighted in this apartment for dressing the victuals; and the domestics

of the family usually sat around them for a considerable time, until

supper was prepared. On the night when the conductors of Thorgunna's

funeral returned to Froda, there appeared, visible to all who were

present, a meteor, or spectral appearance, resembling a half-moon, which

glided around the boarded walls of the mansion in an opposite direction

to the course of the sun, and continued to perform its revolutions until

the domestics retired to rest. This apparition was renewed every night

during a whole week, and was pronounced by Thorer with the wooden leg to

presage pestilence or mortality. Shortly after a herdsman showed signs

of mental alienation, and gave various indications of having sustained

the persecution of evil demons. This man was found dead in his bed one

morning, and then commenced a scene of ghost-seeing unheard of in the

annals of superstition. The first victim was Thorer, who had presaged

the calamity. Going out of doors one evening, he was grappled by the

spectre of the deceased shepherd as he attempted to re-enter the house.

His wooden leg stood him in poor stead in such an encounter; he was

hurled to the earth, and so fearfully beaten, that he died in

consequence of the bruises. Thorer was no sooner dead than his ghost

associated itself to that of the herdsman, and joined him in pursuing

and assaulting the inhabitants of Froda. Meantime an infectious disorder

spread fast among them, and several of the bondsmen died one after the

other. Strange portents were seen within-doors, the meal was displaced

and mingled, and the dried fish flung about in a most alarming manner,

without any visible agent. At length, while the servants were forming

their evening circle round the fire, a spectre, resembling the head of a

seal-fish, was seen to emerge out of the pavement of the room, bending

its round black eyes full on the tapestried bed-curtains of Thorgunna.

Some of the domestics ventured to strike at this figure, but, far from

giving way, it rather erected itself further from the floor, until

Kiartan, who seemed to have a natural predominance over these

supernatural prodigies, seizing a huge forge-hammer, struck the seal

repeatedly on the head, and compelled it to disappear, forcing it down

into the floor, as if he had driven a stake into the earth. This prodigy

was found to intimate a new calamity. Thorodd, the master of the family,

had some time before set forth on a voyage to bring home a cargo of

dried fish; but in crossing the river Enna the skiff was lost and he

perished with the servants who attended him. A solemn funeral feast was

held at Froda, in memory of the deceased, when, to the astonishment of

the guests, the apparition of Thorodd and his followers seemed to enter

the apartment dripping with water. Yet this vision excited less horror

than might have been expected, for the Icelanders, though nominally

Christians, retained, among other pagan superstitions, a belief that the

spectres of such drowned persons as had been favourably received by the

goddess Rana were wont to show themselves at their funeral feast. They

saw, therefore, with some composure, Thorodd and his dripping attendants

plant themselves by the fire, from which all mortal guests retreated to

make room for them. It was supposed this apparition would not be

renewed after the conclusion of the festival. But so far were their

hopes disappointed, that, so soon as the mourning guests had departed,

the fires being lighted, Thorodd and his comrades marched in on one

side, drenched as before with water; on the other entered Thorer,

heading all those who had died in the pestilence, and who appeared

covered with dust. Both parties seized the seats by the fire, while the

half-frozen and terrified domestics spent the night without either light

or warmth. The same phenomenon took place the next night, though the

fires had been lighted in a separate house, and at length Kiartan was

obliged to compound matters with the spectres by kindling a large fire

for them in the principal apartment, and one for the family and

domestics in a separate hut. This prodigy continued during the whole

feast of Jol. Other portents also happened to appal this devoted family:

the contagious disease again broke forth, and when any one fell a

sacrifice to it his spectre was sure to join the troop of persecutors,

who had now almost full possession of the mansion of Froda. Thorgrima

Galldrakinna, wife of Thorer, was one of these victims, and, in short,

of thirty servants belonging to the household, eighteen died, and five

fled for fear of the apparitions, so that only seven remained in the

service of Kiartan.

Kiartan had now recourse to the advice of his maternal uncle Snorro, in

consequence of whose counsel, which will perhaps appear surprising to

the reader, judicial measures were instituted against the spectres. A

Christian priest was, however, associated with Thordo Kausa, son of

Snorro, and with Kiartan, to superintend and sanctify the proceedings.

The inhabitants were regularly summoned to attend upon the inquest, as

in a cause between man and man, and the assembly was constituted before

the gate of the mansion, just as the spectres had assumed their wonted

station by the fire. Kiartan boldly ventured to approach them, and,

snatching a brand from the fire, he commanded the tapestry belonging to

Thorgunna to be carried out of doors, set fire to it, and reduced it to

ashes with all the other ornaments of her bed, which had been so

inconsiderately preserved at the request of Thurida. A tribunal being

then constituted with the usual legal solemnities, a charge was

preferred by Kiartan against Thorer with the wooden leg, by Thordo Kausa

against Thorodd, and by others chosen as accusers against the individual

spectres present, accusing them of molesting the mansion, and

introducing death and disease among its inhabitants. All the solemn

rites of judicial procedure were observed on this singular occasion;

evidence was adduced, charges given, and the cause formally decided. It

does not appear that the ghosts put themselves on their defence, so that

sentence of ejectment was pronounced against them individually in due

and legal form. When Thorer heard the judgment, he arose, and saying--

"I have sat while it was lawful for me to do so," left the apartment by

the door opposite to that at which the judicial assembly was

constituted. Each of the spectres, as it heard its individual sentence,

left the place, saying something which indicated its unwillingness to

depart, until Thorodd himself was solemnly called on to leave.

"We have here no longer," said he, "a peaceful dwelling, therefore will

we remove."

Kiartan then entered the hall with his followers, and the priest, with

holy water, and celebration of a solemn mass, completed the conquest

over the goblins, which had been commenced by the power and authority of

the Icelandic law.